Just Dance!

Studio to offer classes for students with disabilities

From Savoy Star
By Erika Nelson, Savoy Star Editor
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a three-part series on the benefits of dance.

This fall at the Christine Rich Dance Academy and Performing Arts Center, children who use a wheelchair will have the opportunity to do what they may have never thought possible: dance.
An so will children with Autism, Asperger’s and Down Syndrome.

Dance Instructor Daniele Smith will be teaching a dance class at the studio specifically for children with disabilities.
“The classes are open to any child,” Smith said. “We will work with their strengths and see what they need as we get to know them.”

The classes are among many new offerings at the studio this fall, and are part of the studio’s initiative to open up the world of dance and the performing arts to a broader spectrum of people.

“I think that sometimes ballet is too closed to certain people,” Smith said. “Everyone deserves the chance to dance and know about the arts.”

Smith came up with the idea of offering dance classes for children with disabilities and presented it to Rich.

“Daniele said she was going to go to school for a few years and then [would] do this, but I thought she should do this now,” Rich said. “A sincere respect and passion for these children is nine-tenths of what’s needed to make these classes work.”

“And Smith has both the dance experience and the passion for children to make the new classes fly.

Smith, who grew up in Brazil, began dancing at the age of four. When she moved to the United States, she began looking for a dance studio, and found Rich. And while her background is in classical ballet, Smith has branched off toward an interest in working with children in recent years. While in Brazil, Smith studied to be a teacher, and she is presently working toward a degree in social work at Parkland College.

Rich said in the studio, Smith specializes in working with children ages two through eight.

“She understands they can have moody days, so she’s used to dealing with them,” Rich said. “She has a passion.”

And Smith’s passion for working with children with disabilities stems from her own experience.

“My aunt has a mental disability, and growing up with her, I [developed] and affection toward people with disabilities,” Smith said. “I knew that if she had more help, she would have developed even more, would be able to do more than she’s doing now.”

Both Smith and Rich believe that by working with children with disabilities in this capacity, they can ultimately help to make a difference in their development.

“Dance is teaching even more than just coordination,” Rich said. “It’s the physical health benefits, the coordination to music, the social integration… [dance] accelerates the brain’s capacity to learn even more through this art form.”

In preparation for the classes, Rich ran the idea by local agencies, such as the Champaign County Down Syndrome Network and the Champaign-Urbana Autism Network. She said she has had a very positive response from parents, and the studio already has children signed up for Smith’s classes.

“As I’ve talked with parents of children of special needs they are just so grateful and happy to have this opportunity for their child to dance,” Rich said.

In explaining the importance of the dance classes, Rich cited a study involving dancers and premature babies. In the study, researchers brought in dancers to gently move the limbs of premature babies to music, in an effort to help increase blood flow and muscular development.

“The movements helped to foster growth,” Rich said, explaining that the study helps to validate a dance class for children with disabilities, as well.

“[The study found that] even weighing just a few ounces, the tiniest of creatures respond to the combination of music and dance,” Rich said. “So why should children with [disabilities] be excluded?”

Smith will teach two sessions of dance for children with special needs. The first session will run from Sept. 9 through Oct. 21 and the second session from Oct. 28 through Dec. 16. During both sessions, classes will take place on Saturdays. A class for children ages four to six will meet from 11:15 to 11:50 a.m., and a class for ages seven through 16 will meet from 11:50 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. Rich said although the older class is advertised for children up to age 16, the studio will accept older students, as well.

And just as she does for all of her other students, Rich hopes to have a recital for the children in Smith’s classes, as well.

“One of the mothers I spoke with said being a part of [the studio’s] big recital may be too much stimulation, so it would be better to have a recital in a more protected environment,” Rich said. “It would give them a chance to perform and have their family celebrate them.”

And a dance class designed specifically for children with special needs is one more step in Rich’s dream of incorporating the performing arts into the studio’s offerings.

“This is a dance academy and performing arts center,” Rich said. “Dance has benefited so many students of mine in so many different capacities. If we can branch out and give more children that opportunity, we not only enrich their lives, but enrich the world of the performing arts. As various performing arts lose their funding, it’s on the local front that the studios and teachers can make a difference.

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